Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers.
Dolores Huerta: I was a volunteer and Cesar was a staff person. What we had in common was that we were both concerned about the condition of farmworkers and that joint care that we had is what eventually led us to leave the community service organization because they didn’t want to support an effort to organize farmworkers. We had planned it in advance and we thought we had everybody’s approval, but when it came to our convention, they voted it down, so both Cesar and I left the community service organization to start the Farmworkers Union.
Carol Boss: When you first met, what was it, about 1955 or so?
Huerta: Yes, I joined the organization in ’55. I think he had joined the year before that.
Boss: What would you say were some of those formative moments that you both thought were important to organize farmworkers?
Huerta: Although the conditions of the Latinos and Mexican-American in cites were pretty bad, the conditions of farmworkers was very, very bad, so that is why we decided to [start the Farmworkers Union]. At some point, I came to the realization that farmworkers needed a union and of course, Cesar came to the same realization, and we were still thinking that if they did not support this pilot program to organize farmworkers, then we would just leave. I remember those words, which are written in my mind, where he said, “If we don’t start a union for farmworkers, they will never have a union.” Then he said in the next breath; “But we will not see a national union in our lifetime.” I said, “Why is that Cesar?” He said, “Because the growers are too rich, they’re too powerful and they’re too racist.”
Boss: Did he talk early on about non-violence?
Huerta: Yeah, that was interested because both Cesar and myself had both read Gandhi and of course when I met Cesar, I didn’t know that he read Gandhi. That was another point that we had in common and just the whole idea of everything that Gandhi did in India to overturn the British rule of India, but he did it through non-violence. We both had that commitment.
Of course, in the Farmworkers Movement, many of the methods we used to combat violence were following Gandhi. The march that we did, when we marched from Delano to Sacramento, was not a march. We called it a “pilgrimage.” We called it a pilgrimage because we wanted the farmworkers to not think in terms of vindictiveness or revenge, but to think more in terms of prayer, offering and sacrifice.
When we did our fast, Cesar was very alone for the fast that he did. He did three fasts. His first fast was for 25 days dedicated to Mumbai Islands and that was here in Delano, California. His second fast was in Arizona, another 25 days of water only, all he took was water and Holy Communion. The third fast that he did was a 36 day fast and that one he did against the use of pesticides. The way that he framed it is he said, “I’m doing this fast to take away the hatred out of the hearts of the growers and also, if there is hatred in the hearts of the farmworkers, then I went that also to be removed.”
Boss: In the summer of 1965, it seemed like strike fever was sweeping California. I wanted to ask you to describe the scene in the meeting halls on the day of the vote to walk out of the vineyard that summer.
Huerta: I want to add to that question because a lot of people think; oh well, Cesar strolled through the fields to talk to farmworkers and everybody came out on strike. It didn’t happen that way at all. We started organizing farmworkers in 1962 when we left the community service organization and the strike did not start until 1965.
During those three years, there was a lot of painstaking organizing; meeting with farmworkers in their homes, meeting with families, convincing them that they had power, convincing them that they could make changes, convincing them that if they didn’t do this, nobody was going to do it for them.
So in 1965 when the strike happened, the workers were already organized. Since the Pilipino farmers came out on strike, then we had to support them. It was of course very thrilling when we got the workers together. They had to take a strike vote and when they did, of course it was very exhilarating.
Boss: It sounded like cries of strike literally rocked the meeting halls.
Huerta: Yes it did. Yes it did. It was very scary for the workers. You’re talking about people who were very poor. When we went on strike in 1965, the wages for farmworkers were like $0.90 per hour. At the initial strike, we said we were going to strike for $1.25 and within a couple of months, the growers raised the wages to $1.25, but then we knew that the real issue was getting recognition. The workers needed the right to representation so that they could have collective bargaining agreements which really bound the growers legally. Not only did they have to raise the wages and the workers could negotiate their wages, but they also had to provide other benefits like drinking water, toilets, unemployment insurance, protection against if they would be fired unjustly, laid off when they shouldn’t have been laid off, things that the workers did not have. They needed these additional protections, not just wages. That’s what a collective bargaining agreement is between employers and their workers and that’s what we were shooting for; getting something that was enforceable by law and it couldn’t just be taken away.
Boss: Of course that strike grew into a national boycott and you directed that national boycott didn’t you?
Huerta: Well, we actually split it up into regions. I ran the boycott from Chicago to New York, from Canada to Florida on the East Coast and then we had other people on the West Coast. When we think of the boycott, we have to think of that as a non-violent economic strategy. Because we couldn’t win in the fields; we were getting arrested, they had court injunctions on us that limited the number of pickets that we could have on a 1,000 acre field, only five people to a field, so that they couldn’t even see us. And that’s why we had to go to the boycott.
The farmer workers would go to churches and speak to people at churches. They had labor meetings and community organizations just getting people to support by not buying grapes. More than that, they organized people to set up picket lines in front of stores and when they would picket the stores. A lot of volunteers came out to help us and then the stores would take the grapes out. Eventually we were able to get the major chains to take the grapes out of all of their stores and then get people to stop buying grapes all together. It became a huge movement. We had literally millions of people all over the United States who stopped eating grapes and not only the United States, but also in Canada, in Mexico and in Europe.
Boss: That really had to take a bit of courage on the part of those who were participating.
Huerta: Yes it did, and many of them were housewives or students or just people out there in the cities and they came forward to support the farmworkers. Again, we have to go back to the organizing part of this. This just didn’t happen. Farmworkers went out there and made this happen by speaking and recruiting people, getting people to support us on those picket lines. It was very exciting.
Boss: Could you take us through, let’s say an argument with even one person who you were trying to convince not to buy grapes, someone who really couldn’t understand? What would you say to them?
Huerta: Most people were very sympathetic and the message was simple; farmworkers in California are on strike. Farmworkers don’t have toilets in the fields, they don’t have drinking water, they don’t have any protection from pesticides and we need your help. When you have farmworkers themselves telling the story and people can see in their faces and see them right before them, it was a very, very powerful message.
Boss: In March, 1966, that walk, the 300 walk from Delano to Sacramento, California’s capitol, was really a way of dramatizing what was already a six month old grape strike. I know that one goal was to stress non-violence and make more visible the non-violent tactics. Why was that an important goal of the march?
Huerta: Because in history, when you look at the history of labor organizing in the fields of California, it had always been one of violence. If you read John Steinbeck’s novels; The Grapes of Wrath, the other novels that he wrote about the early strikes in California, there was violence and people were killed. When we started the union, Cesar and myself, we did a lot of research. We didn’t want that to happen again. We didn’t want the people to turn to violence either on the part of the farmworkers or on the part of the growers. Of course eventually, we did have people that were killed. We have five martyrs that were killed in the Farmworkers Movement. Cesar, one of the things that he always stressed is that if we turn to violence, we will use it against each other. We have to stay away from violence. He actually made everybody take a standing vow that we would not resort to violence. That’s why, when we did that march, it was a pilgrimage. The pilgrimage did not go through the big cities. It went through all the farmworker towns. When the pilgrimage started as they left Delano, California, there were probably I would say 70 to 90 farmworkers that started. By the time that the farmworkers and Cesar arrived in Sacramento, there were 10,000 people.
Boss: Cesar said that without the help of those millions upon millions of people who believe as we do, that non-violence is the way to struggle, I’m sure we wouldn’t be here today. The strikers and the people involved in the struggle sacrificed a lot, sacrificed all of their worldly possessions, 95% of the strikers lost their homes and their cars, but I think in losing these worldly possessions, they found themselves.
Huerta: I think it encapsulates what the whole movement was about. Also a message for everybody out there; we do have to sacrifice. If we don’t sacrifice, things do not change. If we do not come together and if we do not organize, then all of the justice goals that we want to achieve are never going to happen. The sacrifice, the non-violence is a very big part of it and in fact, I think it’s the foundation.
Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Jose-Antonio Orosco, Oregon State University Professor and author of “Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence.”
Jose-Antonio Orosco: When Cesar was asked “Who was really your inspiration for learning about non-violence?” he always pointed back and said that it was his mother and the practices of his mother. She would, at that time, try to prepare meals for homeless people in the community. She would try to do acts of charity and so forth and so, from a very early age, she said that he was brought up in the idea of service to people who were needy.
Carol Boss: Jose Antonio, you mentioned two life-altering encounters that Cesar Chavez had; one with father Donald McDonald who was a parish priest and a labor organizer. You said that he instigated Cesar’s love of reading and passion for non-violence. One of the individuals that Cesar met through the books was Saint Francis of Assisi.
Orosco: I think that something that was really impactful for Cesar about Saint Francis was the connections to nature and to animals in particular. Saint Francis always believed that it was important to, in some sense, commune with nature and think of nature as a living, breathing whole system, sort of a pre-ecological consciousness, and to think about nature as a being that we must be in relationship with.
He believed that animals are themselves sentient beings who have personalities and lives and thoughts that we can take into account in our own lives. I think that this impacted Cesar into understanding and an appreciation that nature is not just natural resources, but it’s something that we have to take into account. It’s something that nourishes us, that feeds us, that is part of our own lives and bodies and I think, quite frankly, this probably affected his own decisions later on in life to become a vegetarian. He was quite honored later on in life for emphasizing that a peaceful, non-violent life means one about treating animals well and humanely in various ways, so for him, that meant that he had to become a vegetarian.
Boss: It sounds like also that there was something about his readings of Saint Francis and also Gandhi that really impacted him.
Orosco: Yes, I think that part of it was that he saw a connection, a much greater connection from his own experiences to these other folks around the world. He was able to see this kind of idea of service to the least advantaged in society was something that was part of a much broader human experience. From Gandhi and from reading Thoreau, he was also able to see that this was a political practice. This was more than just about charity. It was about trying to understand how power structures create disadvantaged people and that we can work to change those power structures.
Boss: Cesar Chavez also met Fred Ross who was an organizer who became his life-long friend and mentor and he hired him to be an organizer.
Orosco: Yes, the story, in terms of how they met, is really a great one. Fred Ross was an organizer with an organization called the “Community Services Organization” that was an offshoot of the Saul Alinsky groups back in Chicago. The job of the Community Service Organization was to help organize urban Mexican-Americans in California to do voter drives and to organize to protect themselves against police brutality in California and also just to get involved in city politics.
Fred Ross was sent out as an organizer into Sal Si Puedes which means “get out if you can,” which was near San Jose, California. Cesar Chavez was a young man at the time and he styled himself, he said at the time, as a young thug.
Mexican-Americans heard that there was some white man walking around the neighborhood talking to people and they were trying to figure out who he was. They were used to social workers and police officers coming into town and disrupting things, but this guy, they were trying to figure out who he was.
Fred Ross organized a house meeting, which was one of the tactics that the CSO tried to do; get people together in the house of a neighbor or someone in the community and talk about the ways in which they could get together to organize, to take power and to control their own lives.
So they heard that Fred Ross was having a house meeting and he and Cesar Chavez and some of his friends said, “What we’ll do is go to this meeting.” Then Cesar Chavez said, “When I give the signal, we’re going to mess this guy up.”
So they went to the house meeting and Fred Ross started talking about a case of police brutality in Los Angeles that was very notorious at the time where the police had beaten several Mexican-American prisoners in the city jail and had gotten away with it. Fred Ross was telling them, “Look, there are ways that we can deal with this. We can take care of this.”
Cesar Chavez said that his friends were waiting for him to give the signal so that they could mess this guy up and Cesar found that he was instead really interested in what Fred Ross had to say. He had never thought that there could be a possibility of community members doing something to protect themselves against police brutality, of taking control of the city politics, of being able to change their circumstances. He said later on that he never gave that signal because he wanted to hear what Fred Ross had to say.
After Fred Ross finished talking, Cesar said that he signed up immediately because he figured that it was better to try to become an organizer than to continue his life as a thug.
The Delano trek was the initial struggle for the burgeoning United Farm Workers that started in 1962-1963.
Cesar Chavez was an organizer for Fred Ross’s organization for about ten years. He had stability as an organizer. He had a steady income and a house and a car and several children to take care of and what is the striking thing about Cesar Chavez is that he decided to give all of that up to try to form the Farm Workers. So he gave up all of this stability and security to try to work for people that he felt were being ignored, even by an organization like the Community Services Organization.
The Grape Strike was, in a sense, their first effort to build solidarity. What was really unique about the strike, I think, is the way in which it was more than just a pure labor strike, but it turned into a social movement. It turned into a rallying call for Mexican-Americans in California to seek solidarity between the farmworkers and young chicanos in the cities, to seek solidarity also with folks in other parts of the country who started to see the conditions under which farmworkers were struggling in California. The people who were producing the food that they were eating were dismal and they needed to, as consumers of that food, get on board.
Boss: Chavez attempted to improve the working conditions of course of farmworkers, but he also saw it as developing a larger mission over time.
Orosco: I think that Cesar Chavez saw that the reason that the farmworkers were struggling was an unequal power balance between the growers and the farmworkers. He started to see that it was about various kinds of power and inequalities in American society in general. He made the connection between the violence that he saw when the growers would call the police out or they would hire security to protect the fields and push the farmworkers around. He saw connections between that kind of violence that was going on in the streets with the riots during the 1960s. He also saw a connection between this idea of the United States being involved in Vietnam. He started to see that there were connections of structural violence around the world and started to put all of this together that the reason that the farmworkers were struggling was because agriculture was becoming corporatized and there were people to use violence to protect those corporate interests against the interest of the farmworkers.
Boss: When people think about dedication to non-violence, most people think of Gandhi, King, the Dali Lama. What does Cesar Chavez bring that is unique?
Orosco: I think that what’s interesting is that typically, when you talk about non-violence, you have this litany of heroes that are engaged in non-violence. People will say: Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and sometimes they’ll mention Chavez or Dolores Huerta.
I think that Chavez offers, in his practice and the way he talked about non-violence is very, very different from the way in which Gandhi and Martin Luther King thought about the effectiveness of non-violence. He didn’t believe of course in violence, but he did believe that sometimes, in order to achieve justice, you have to create tension in a community. You have to create a kind of disruption so that the status quo, which is of injustice, cannot continue. This is of course something that Martin Luther King talked about in his letter from a Birmingham jail; creative tension necessary to disrupt the status quo. Chavez was willing to engage in politics that I think Gandhi would not have thought appropriate for a person of non-violence.
Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Juanita Valdez-Cox,
Executive Director of LUPE (La Union Del Pueblo Entero).
Carol Boss: What were the beginnings? Did you family experienced that; the organizing efforts?
Valdez-Cox: My mom and dad, like many other farmworkers joined the union in 1979 when Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and Fred Ross were organizing this area so that farmworkers could have toilets in the fields or safe drinking water. The use of the short-handled hoe was banned. Workers would start receiving the minimum wage which was like $1.40 at the time. They joined in ’79. I think it was in February. I still have his union membership card that’s why I remember those dates.
Boss: I know that there was a big convention that had happened there, it was the first one.
Valdez-Cox: That’s the one. That was the very first one. It was fabulous.
Boss: That was a momentous event.
Valdez-Cox: Yes it was. It was. There were hundreds of delegates. It was the very first farmworkers convention ever in South Texas and probably in the whole state of Texas.
Boss: Do you remember seeing Cesar Chavez for the first time?
Valdez-Cox: I was volunteering at the union. I remember him telling us some of the things that needed to be done here so that we could win those changes, so that we could make those changes. I remember telling him; “But we don’t even have water in our colonia [colony]. We don’t even have paved streets and we don’t have all of the very basic necessities.” He told us, “Well, that’s up to you. It is your responsibility.” He said, “At the end of the day I will go back to California, but who is going to live without water and who is going to live without the paved streets so that the bus can pick you up for school?”
At the time it was like, wow, he thinks we can do it? What impressed me was him believing that, as farmworkers, we could do something really to have an impact on our lives. He saw something in all of us before we saw it in ourselves. That’s sort of confusing, but what I’m trying to say is that he had faith because he had worked with farmworkers in California. He knew the power that we could have. He told us that not only one time, but many times over about what we could do and when we started to win, we started to totally believe and said, “You know what? He’s absolutely right. If we help feed this world, we have a lot of power and we also need to have the respect.”
There are many wonderful memories of changes that have been made, but they also have come through a lot of sacrifice and some scars have remained in people’s hearts and memories for a lifetime.
Something that has to be recognized by everyone is that those that are in the fields that bring food to the stores, we need to think about them every time we eat because it is because of them. We need to make sure that we work so that the laws that are now effective are respected and that they are enforced.
Boss: Can you talk briefly about the forces that moved you and inspired you to do the work that you’re doing for your organization now. You’re the Executive Director of LUPE which is La Union Del Pueblo Entero, the union of all the people.
Boss: Talk about how, in a sense, you’re carrying on the work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.
Valdez-Cox: I think that through all of the valuable lessons, not only from Cesar and Dolores, but from the farmworkers themselves [we have got to be] willing to take a risk and say things have got to be different. We’ve got to work towards changing some of these laws. We’ve got to make life better for our children.
Some of the same philosophies that Cesar had still carry on. It’s part of our culture and the work that we do. It’s learning from the work that they did; learning and respecting what they did to bring us up to this point and feeling a responsibility of making sure that it is moved into the future. While there still remains injustices in the fields or in the communities, we’ve got to continue this work that they started. It is on their shoulders that we stand.
All of our programs here at LUPE for example, one of the big core values is self-help and we just believe that if we live the problem, then we can be part of that solution because we know it, we feel it and we are going to feel the impact of the change and therefore, we’ve got to be involved.